We are proud that religious institutions play a critical role in serving the least fortunate among us. Every day, men and women of faith selflessly care for our children, serve the elderly, heal the sick, lift up the poor and cure the addicted. The members of my own congregation operate a transitional housing unit in which homeless men and women work with a social worker to find and prepare for permanent residency.
In so doing, we express our commitment to bringing Jewish values to bear on the world around us. In so doing, we strive to realize the vision of our prophets, who taught us to "speak up, judge righteously, [and] champion the poor and the needy." In so doing, we bring the ethical teachings of our tradition into the lives of our members, thereby linking the Jewish past to the Jewish present.
It is out of my commitment to the success of such programs that I join my fellow members of the clergy in urging Congress and President George W. Bush to reject plans to inject government funds into religious institutions. While the goals of the proponents of so-called "charitable choice" may be laudable, their policy proposals are dangerous, divisive and uncharitable.
What makes charitable choice dangerous? Religion, like anything else, is not inclined to bite the hand that feeds it. Charitable choice supporters argue that religious groups can effectively fulfill our nation's obligation to the poor and others who need a helping hand. Yet once religious institutions are working in tandem with the federal government and receiving tax dollars to provide services, members may be less inclined to "dig a little deeper" to help with their time and expenses.
Making religious institutions dependent on the government for money will only harm these institutions and their vitality in the long run. As Martin Luther King once pointed out, "The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."
What makes charitable choice divisive? In the past two months, the Rev. Jerry Falwell has suggested that Islamic organizations should never be eligible for funding because "the Muslim faith teaches hate." The Rev. Eugene Rivers has argued that opponents of charitable choice are racially motivated and Pat Robertson has insisted that no money go to the Hare Krishnas, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church and the Church of Scientology.
With less than three months having passed by since the president announced his faith-based initiative, and before there is any money on the table, these examples are only the tip of the iceberg of sectarian strife lurking below the surface. Imagine the possibility for divisiveness when different faiths start competing against one another for funding.
Why is charitable choice, in fact, uncharitable? Neither President Bush's budget nor the recently introduced Watts/Hall "Community Solutions Act" add a single dime to the government's commitment to end poverty. All they do is provide more competition for existing dollars and, thereby, divert money from today's most effective social service programs.
The dangers posed by the President's faith-based initiative are serious and far-reaching. The damage to our nation and its religious institutions in particular could be profound. As leaders of faith communities, we cannot stand idly by as members of Congress and the current administration threaten to undermine our self-reliance and strength and divide us along religious lines.
Rabbi Amy Schwartzman is senior rabbi of Temle Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va. She delivered these remarks April 24 at a Capitol Hill press conference announcing a petition to Congress and President George W. Bush opposing "faith-based" funding for houses of worship. Over 850 clergy from many different religious traditions signed the petition.